Conduct Unbecoming

Bill Beachum, war hero and Disabled American Veterans honcho, had an out-of-control dream that may soon land him in jail. Question is, was he the only old soldier on a mission of greed?

The pension was already wavering.

Bay thought about all the people who'd worked their entire lives for the DAV. All the volunteers who drove paralyzed vets to the medical center. All the donors who gave in good faith.

The anger came over him and would not leave.

David Hollenbach
David Hollenbach

"There's enough pus and poison there to kill anybody who gets near it," a St. Louis veterans' advocate says of the St. Louis scandal. "These posts become little microcosms of the military. The guys who would've been the million-dollar supply sergeants rise to leadership positions very quickly."

He's seen the power hunger, the sense of damage and entitlement, the easy game of favors and opportunities, play out again and again.

The last to notice are the members, whom Connie Bay describes as a mix of "the World War II guys, who just want a place to be wined and dined, and the Vietnam guys, who want to be left alone."

Member Harry Donnegan, who's near 80, remembers that he and a friend, both businessmen, used to raise an eyebrow at the minimal financial data presented at the chapter meetings.

"We didn't raise any Cain about it," he admits, "because in an organization like that you don't want to stir up a lot of stuff."

He sighs.

"It was our apathy that got us where we are."

Attorney Pete Gullborg has been acting as custodian for heavy boxes of files on the DAV.

Two weeks ago, out of the blue, he received a letter from Ken Hale, identifying himself as the adjutant of Chapter One -- which is still dissolved -- on letterhead listing a phone number that now rings in the office of a well-known local charity with no connection to DAV.

Hale requested all files in Gullborg's possession and offered no explanation.

When Bay found out, he made a phone call. He says he was told that the directive came from national but that they wanted the request to go out on the local's letterhead and said it didn't matter that the chapter no longer existed. Just get those records back.

Gullborg refused to release them.

In ancient Mesopotamia, the community laid its sins on a goat and drove it into the wilderness to die alone.

Some say that's what's happening with Beachum, a particularly foolish goat but surely not the only one to bend the congressionally chartered DAV's "benevolent, fraternal-beneficial and educational purposes."

He goes to trial July 1 and faces 221 years in prison if convicted on all counts. The prosecutor's office has offered seven years if he pleads guilty.

Questions about the pension, the books, the management practices and the bankruptcy hang in midair.

"The whole thing stinks from beginning to end," says Kooyman, who refrains from further comment.

Jane Doe and Jess Stagner are pressing their lawsuits.

The thrift-store employees are still waiting for the money due them -- and an explanation of how it drained away with nobody noticing. They've been told that the Department of Labor is investigating.

Members just want their charter back. They've been promised that their chapter will be reinstated when the bankruptcy proceedings conclude, and everything will return to normal.

If this is normal -- and if trying Beachum and closing the thrift stores is the sum total of the consequences -- Jerry Bay plans to leave the organization.

Members and former employees say he's the one DAV leader they still trust. They pronounce his full name and draw comfort from it:

"We can ask Jerry Bay."

"Jerry Bay will tell us the truth."

He will.

But he no longer trusts the other leaders to give it to him.

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